I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.

St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thoughts on the Importance of Handing Down the Faith to the Next Generation: Reflections on Joshua 24: 1-28 / Judges 2:6-23

Paul surely enjoins us to this type of study when he says: “Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did” (I Cor.10:6). I believe that Paul would be thrilled to find us mussing the dire lessons from Israel’s history, as would Stephen (Acts 7), as also would Jude (vv.5-7, 11). Indeed, the whole scope of the NT revelation in built upon and is inexplicable apart from Yahweh’s words and deeds concerning ancient Israel.

Surely no other texts in scripture bear greater witness to the old coinage, “the Christian faith is always and only one generation away from extinction.” The texts given for the topic of our discussion provide an example of the negative consequences of one generation failing to obey and hand down the covenant faith to the next.

Also to be noticed is the thematic parallel between Joshua and the time of the Judges, and Jesus (the names Jesus and Joshua are identical in the Greek - ιήσους) and the dispensation of the Church age. As the first Joshua was the successor of Moses’ prophetic leadership (Josh.1:5, 17; 3:7) – Jesus was the Prophet like Moses who was to come (Deut. 18:14-20). Joshua’s obedience initiates a period of temporary rest and the secured possession of the land (Josh. 21:43-45; 24:31). The writer of Hebrews contrasts this with the eternal rest and inheritance provided by Jesus’ obedience and faithfulness (Heb.4:8-9; 9:15; cf. Eph.1:11-14; Col.3:24). Thus, the gospels may be likened to a fulfillment of the victorious time foreshadowed in Joshua’s conquest and capturing of the Promised Land, and the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles seeing the realization of the Kingdom of God on the macro level.

While pages could be filled with like similarities between the Joshua’s revelational epoch and God’s supreme revelation of his Son, it suffices here to say that there are certain key points in our texts which find there fulfillment in Christ and his kingdom possession and expansion. The principles that can be gleaned bear hard on our contemporary crisis of a weak and waning commitment to the New Covenant by the rising generation of young people.

While these passages offer little positive instruction for the church today, there are plenty of exemplarily concepts, all negative, which should be recognized and allowed to teach us what to avoid, rebuke us in our own similarities with Joshua’s generation, correct us in our failings to perpetuate the faith, and train us by way of contrast for the good work of fostering a generation of Christians that will take hold of the Kingdom violently and with force (II Tim.3:16-17; Mt. 11:12).

I. A. Compromise – The Slippery Slope

While the fathers’ (Joshua’s) generation finds a degree of positive commendation for their faithfulness to the covenant during the life and leadership of Joshua (Josh.24:31; Judg.2:6, 22), one does not need to scour the text to see obvious antecedent failures on their part which lead to the ultimate apostasy of the next generation. The Covenant renewal in Josh.24 tends to blur the distinction between the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. While bearing all the essentials of a Divine covenant, the unification present in Joshua’s reinstatement of the Covenant is caused by a concentration on the momentary perils facing the nation – all the while assuming, never usurping the covenant mediated through Moses.

The focus on idolatry is manifest throughout the recitation of covenant terms and Israel’s history. Israel as a nation was a result of Divine grace (Deut.7:7-8). In the preamble of the covenant, Yahweh begins by reminding the fathers of the first spiritual exodus – his graciously delivering Abraham out of his idolatry across the Euphrates (Josh.24:2). Likewise, the condition of the covenant renewal is two sides of the same action; to serve and obey Yahweh “with all faithfulness” is the positive opposite action when one does truly “throw away the gods of their forefathers” (v.14; cf. I Thess.1:9). Last, in the ratification of the covenant (v.23), Joshua’s words again presuppose that there was still an element of syncretistic idolatry among the wilderness generation (v.23). There is no question that their inability to abandon the pagan deities of the past precipitated much of the apostasy in the future generation.

Judges 2:6-23 must be understood for what it is. This second part of the book’s prologue does not contribute to the chronology of the book. It is rather an indicative summary of the entire period between the death of Joshua and the inauguration of the Monarchy, a time frame of approximately 300 years. It reveals the redundant pattern of apostasy, foreign oppression, cries of suffering, and Yahweh’s gracious deliverance; a theme seen over and again throughout the book. Therefore, to posit too clean of a break in the religious devotion between these two “generations,” as from one father to the next son, is probably misguided. The gradation of depravity in the nation could better be likened to “turning up the volume” or a trickling effect rather than a static “flip of the switch.”

The rising indulgence in idolatry during the Judge’s generation can also be followed back to the pragmatism of the fathers’ generation. While in the Deuteronomic covenant (ch.7) Yahweh demanded the utter destruction of the pagan nations dwelling in the land Israel was about to inhabit, the fathers failed to see the wisdom in such a plan and had more practical or pragmatic inclinations as to handling the people around them. Six of the twelve tribes saw fit to ignore Yahweh’s decree of antithesis between them and the world around them. Rather than utterly destroying the people (with their respective religious – philosophical – ethical perspectives), they chose to make use of them as slaves (Judg.1:27-36). Surely the Israelites perceived something Yahweh had over looked; namely the value of the human capitol that would have been wasted through the annihilation of the Amorites, Canaanites and others. In hindsight the conventional wisdom of man is shown to be utter foolishness in challenging the omniscient knowledge of God (I Cor.1-2). There was a pragmatic way that seemed right to Israel, but the end of that way was death to faith of many following generations (Prov.16:25)! Deut.7 was to be the staple diet for Israel in regard to their international relations. Its observation could have been their preservation – no compromise!

I. B. Contemporary Compromise

There is little question that the previous “generation” of the church had its share of syncretistic compromise with the ideologies of the world. And a “new generation” is rising which is on the brink of apostasy because of it.

While Joshua’s generation never made the wholesale dive into paganism, its theology was under the constant strain. One could say there was always a precarious element of “fence riding” happening. A survey of the last century of church history demonstrates that something similar has occurred. The secularization of our society has made no small impact on Christianity. The “sacred – secular” divide is no less prevalent among evangelicals today than it is in the world at large. Such polar thinking is lucid across the board.

For sake of our topic consider the ultimate source back of the vast majority of the “Christian” parenting material. We are instructed to bring up our children according to the basic presuppositions atheistic pop psychology. The fundamental works of Freud, Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner are baptized as it were with lick and paste Bible verses, after which the theories of these pagans are considered redeemed and safe for Christian consumption. Sadly, there is little that is distinctly Christian about most of today’s “Christian” psychology. In this and many other areas we have failed to recognize the distinct, sanctified (set-apart-ness), and antithetical nature of the church’s calling: “...you shall not make a covenant with the people of this land, but you shall break down their alters.” (Judg.2:3) “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred towards God?” (James 4:4). Failing to maintain the antithesis between the world and the church has lead to the shaky circumstances we are experiencing with today’s youth (cf. Deut.7:1-6).

The rising generation is right in much of its criticism and skepticism of what has become church-ianity. They often see the modern church as merely an arbitrary authority which must be questioned and scrutinized. Much of this antipathy can be traced back to a past generation of compromise. Years of synthesizing a worldly philosophy of life and things into popular Christianity has blinded this generation to whatever integrity, community, and authenticity that may remain in the church today. This is reflective in the statistics. Consider these findings from George Barna’s research group @ www.barna.org:

• Boomers emerge as more likely and Mosaics as less likely than any other generation to be born again (33% of Mosaics, 38% of Busters, 53% of Boomers are born again, compared to 48% of Elders). (2006)
• Mosaics are the least likely age group to indicate that faith is a very important part of their life. Only 51% of Mosaics say their faith is very important in their life, compared with 62% of Busters, 73% of Boomers and 79% of Elders. (2006)
• 61% of Mosaics, 67% of Busters 77% of Boomers, 74% of Elders believe that God is the all-powerful, all-knowing, perfect creator that rules the world today. (2006)
• Mosaics (born between 1984 and 2002) are the generation least likely to strongly agree that they have a personal responsibility to tell others people about their religious beliefs.

It appears we are beginning to see the slippery affects of worldly compromise in our own generation. The church needs to, if only for practical reasons, heed the words of Paul in Col.2:8 in order to recover from the damaging effects of adopting and using worldly paradigms. Unfortunately, this verse has lead many to believe that it is impious to do philosophy. However, this is naïve and far from Paul’s point, for everyone does philosophy – Paul is warning us how not to do it. By the church’s failure to self-consciously adopt and stringently maintain a philosophy in all of life (psychology, science, education, etc) which is after the teaching of Christ we have inevitably synthesized “deceptive philosophies” that are based on “the basic principle of the world.” This causes us to miss the “fullness of God” (v.9) and “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2:3) in the process and outworking of our everyday lives.

The skepticism of today’s generation is not to be duped by such a double standard. Perhaps the greatest questions of this generation are “how am I to get along in life, make sense of my experience, make decisions, etc?” The compromise of the church, with one foot in the Bible and one in the world, leaves the youth wondering what makes the Christian faith any better at answering their fundamental problems, when the church itself must seek answers elsewhere. They then turn “elsewhere,” find the same answer’s the church offers yet without the moral constraints of “God, values, rules, absolutes, and authority.”

Therefore, if we are to learn anything from failings of Joshua’s generation concerning preserving the trans-generational covenant faith of Christ, we must begin by kicking the world out of our own lives, families, the church, and ultimately out of the world itself! We must take our very thoughts captive to Christ and make no treaty of compromise with the philosophers of the world (II Cor.10:5; Deut.7:2). Maintain the antithesis!!

II. A. Personal Experience Not Enough

Judges 2:7 tells us that “The people served Yahweh throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things Yahweh had done for Israel.” Much of the faithfulness of the former generation flowed from their experiencing first hand the awful and might wonders of Yahweh during the wandering years. After having been sent away by Joshua, “each one to his own inheritance” (Josh.24:28), it seems that the experiences of Yahweh’s Majesty which had been displayed in the wilderness grew dim. Judges 2:10 betrays this suspicion, considering that the next generation “knew neither Yahweh nor what he had done for Israel.”

In the later generation, this pattern is perpetual. God would raise up a Judge for the deliverance of the people, anoint him with power, and deliver the people in miraculous ways for them to become sated in their comfort and immediately dismiss the One who did it from their thoughts – with the passing of that generation’s Judge. This pattern takes the covenantal condition of Deut.8:10-11 and turns it upside down and backwards. Had Israel maintained the principles of Deuteronomy 8 as they stand alone, the period of the Judges and the lives of their children and children’s children would have been radically different – for the better.

II. B. Moses to Joshua: A successful passing of the faith

The passing of the baton from Moses to Joshua provides a positive case study for avoiding “wilderness existentialism” and providing a solid foundation for the next generation’s faith. If we are to ask what the key to Joshua’s success was, we would find the answer at the very beginning of his call to leadership. God’s calling of Joshua, and all the “courage, strength, prosperity, and success” (Josh.1:8-9) he experienced rested atop of what Moses “gave him” (1:7). The anchor of Joshua’s success, in fact the whole trajectory of Israel’s victorious conquest of Canaan rested not on the experiential sensationalism of the “wilderness wonders,” but rather on “careful observation of the law Moses handed down to Joshua (the words of God precede the works of God). Joshua operated his whole life from this Word, not turning to the left or to the right of it. Joshua kept the law ready in his mouth as well as in his mind by continuous meditation on it.” All these things were the precondition for “God being with him.” (Josh.1:6-9).

All of this is not to undermine the value of Yahweh’s activity in their redemption. Joshua, when establishing the two “parties” of the covenant, uses God’s gracious acts throughout Israel’s history in order to identify his character and worthiness, the Israelites unworthiness, and the peoples’ subjection, servitude, and surrender to Yahweh’s rightful rule over them (24:2-13). However, as mentioned earlier, Joshua was not seeking to augment the covenant of Moses so much as the peoples’ commitment and faithfulness to the covenant that they (that same generation themselves, immediately, and personally) received from Moses – as recorded in the book of Deuteronomy.

The group Joshua was hoping to incite to covenantal faithfulness was the same one who received the Deuteronomic covenant, therefore, Joshua and his audience was to presuppose many conditional keys from the covenant exposition found in the book of the law (i.e. Deuteronomy). Many of the precepts were God’s axiomatic design for the generational perpetuation of faith in himself; individually and as a nation collectively. Many of these principles are found in the opening chapters of Deuteronomy.

Deut.6:1-2 gives the prescription that could have prevented the “fathers’ failing.” Moses tells the fathers of the didactic nature and pedagogical necessity of the written word when he says the law (not experience) was given “so that you, your children and their children after them may fear Yahweh your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give.” It is the word of God, not some surreal experience that is to “be upon our hearts, impress on our children, and make the center piece of all our activities” (6:6-9). Further, the word of God, in part, is designed to precipitate our children’s (and grandchildren’s) inquiry into our former experience of God’s Person, presence, and deliverance in our lives (6:20-25). Therefore, the simple observation of Deut.6 could have provided the sure foundation necessary for their next generation’s faith, as proved in the lives of Moses and Joshua.

II. C. We Need Principle, Not Pragmatism

The practicality of the Hebraic’s idea to leave and use the indigenous peoples of the land, in spite of Yahweh’s decree for wholesale destruction, is indicative of how much of the church operates today. In topics ranging from evangelism and church growth to homiletics and theology, the controlling axiom is: “will it work – it is true if it ascertains the desired effect.” Church growth is no longer measured by the depth of the body of believers, but by their breadth – it’s quantitative rather than qualitative results that determine choosing mechanisms or program implementation. The shallow superficiality of “sign this card and you are saved for ever” is betrayed by the indiscriminate line between “Christians” and non-believers, with non-believers often out doing Christians in several ethical categories. The next generation is looking for something radical, something worthy of their reckless devotion; they are not seeing this in the last generation of Christians. To engage the mind of today’s youth with the Living faith of the Christian hope, these young people demand from those that come before them an authentic faith – one that operates on biblically consistent principles, not worldly pragmatism.

Paul paints word pictures of the church which presents it as an organism – a Body (Rom. 12:5; I Cor.10:17; 12:13, 27; Eph.1:23; 2:26; 3:6; 4:4, 12, 16; 5:23, 30; Col.1:18, 24; 2:19; 3:15), however, today it is often treated as a machine. Church bulletins are littered with numbers, dates, meetings, and programs...programs...programs. It is as though there is little more to it than getting the correct program in place, downloading the material, entering the numbers, turning the crank, and out comes Christianity. While this description is admittedly hyperbolic, the principle behind the illustration is almost ubiquitous in the American church as a whole. Until the church recognized Christ’s body for what it is, there will remain very little attraction for the rising generation. The faith in Christ as presented in the scriptures is a family that one is “born into,” a Body one abides in, is grafted into, grows up in, becomes a crucial member of; it is a living breathing organism – none of the biblical concepts fit into the mechanical model.

II. D. Contemporary Sensationalism

We have seen in the lives of Joshua’s generation that the sensational miracles and wonders of the wilderness were in themselves insufficient to communicate the truth of the covenant faith from one age to the next. In the last 50 years of American history the despair and meaninglessness of life without Christ has culminated in this generation. This universal despond has lead many to Christ seeking the meaning of their life in this world. There comes with the masses the unbelieving world’s answer to the problem as well – some mystical, super-natural, erratic, personal experience. We find this emphasis on contemporary “wilderness wonders” predominately in the area of worship, where the pursuit of some experience greater than the last becomes the anthropocentric, narcissistic object of the service. Sadly, when such experiences are not achieved through spiritual thrill seeking, the believer is left bewildered and/or guilt ridden, which often leads to severe introspection or worse, abandoning the little faith in Christ they may have once had. This too reflects the sad results of the inability of Joshua’s generation to establish the next in a commitment that offers any sustention.

I think we should also be more careful with the use of speakers who have extraordinary testimonies when evangelizing our young ones. It is not uncommon at youth rallies and the like to have a speaker invited who in an ex-con that has killed three people, was addicted to heroin, crack, and sex, worshiped Satan through animal sacrifice and didn’t pay his taxes who then, by God great grace, came to Christ six months ago. As wonderful and true as these types of stories may be, for kids who have grown up in godly homes such a conception of “conversion” can lead to disillusionment, and often reveal more about the speaker than Jesus. For most people, their conversion will not be a “Damascus Road” experience. Some people fall in love with Jesus as young children and cannot give you the specific date when they were “converted.” Sensational testimonies, while a wonderful witness to the life changing power of the Living Christ, if overdone, can cause our youth to seriously question whether or not their own experience with Christ, as mundane as it might be, is authentic.

III. A. From the Mouth of Babes

Near Eastern back ground studies reveal that the laws of kings were more than mere penal code of obligations and retributions, their law was meant in part to reflect the intrinsic wisdom and knowledge of the king himself (see: Deut.4:6-8). Therefore, the covenant law given to Israel was in some measure a revelation of the infinite wisdom of their King, Yahweh. This concept becomes very important when examining our topic.

In God’s infinite wisdom and decree, he has determined that young, supple hearts would desire him. Is it any wonder then that in the scriptures the admonition to engender a foundational faith in our children is so common it almost becomes cadence? From “the King’s wisdom” in Deut.6 to Paul celebrating Timothy’s exposure to the Holy Faith from his infancy (II Tim.3:15) this is seen. Timothy’s “salvation” and a readiness of “faith in Christ Jesus” were greatly cultivated by his family steadily steeping him in the “holy scriptures.” This is not some conceptual abstraction, but is something that is confirmed by our own experience. Again Barna’s results demonstrate the “wisdom of our King.”

B. Probability of accepting Christ, segmented by age

• Nearly half (43%) of all Americans who accept Jesus Christ as their savior do so before reaching the age of 13 (2004)

• Two out of three born again Christians (64%) accept Jesus Christ as their savior before their 18th birthday. (2004)

• One out of eight born again people (13%) made their profession of faith while 18 to 21 years old. (2004)

The command of our Lord, the lives of our children, and the hope of the church’s victorious future makes paramount the necessity of building the Kingdom of God with the very stones he gives us – our kids!

IV. Conclusion: Lessons Learned from Joshua’s Generation

To reiterate Paul’s words (I Cor.10:6), there is a generous amount of wisdom to be gained by the mistakes made by those in our text. I will summarize them.

A. There is first the calling and duty of us as parents and grandparents to develop and maintain a distinctly Christian faith. The constant guarding of our own concepts of God, ourselves, and the world in general is the primary point of reference for constructing a Christ honoring foundation for our young ones. Failing to do this crippled the generation of Joshua, and is no less important for us today. Christ calls the leaders of the covenant family to a life uncompromised by worldly principles and ideologies. We are to be a “holy people,” set apart from the world, demonstrating through authentically changed lives that the life Christ gives is altogether other from anything this world can offer. If Joshua’s generation had observed and obeyed only Deut.7 while in the land, world history would have be different. We can make no covenant with the world, to do so is to violate our covenant with the Lord. Maintain the antithesis!

B. Certainly there are moments in every Christian’s life when Christ’s presence through the Holy Spirit so fills the being of the believer that words cannot describe it. Truly, the love of God is spread abroad in our hearts and such subjective experience is fundamental to a deep intimacy and living, loving knowledge of Christ. Still the fact remains that such experiences apart from the guidance, discernment, and determinative control of the scriptures is unintelligible at best and at worse, down right dangerous. The discipleship of our children is the highest calling any parent has. Whether that parent is a pastor, youth leader shepherding forty young people, or a stay at home mother, there is no other responsibility more binding on the parent than “raising their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.” Deut.6, for us today no less than Joshua’s generation, offers the foundational precepts for building a generation of hard following, faith-filled young people. The Word must precede the wonder!

C. In the 16 years I trained dogs one of the most frequent asked questions I would hear is, “my dog is ___ years old...is he too old to train?” My answer was always the same, “Is he dead?” “No” they would reply. “Then no, he is not too old.” Of course training an older dog does have its difficulties, but young ones can be so fickle that you wished they had a couple of years of growth under their belts. I see an analogy in this when applied to passing the faith to our children. The bottom line is that the younger we start the sooner the foundation is built. While no child is too old, we learn from scripture to begin as young as possible, and make the truth of the Bible the very center of our lives and theirs!

V. Other Examples from the Times: The Good, Bad, and Ugly

A. Good ones:

1. Manoah > Samson: While much of Samson’s adult life is marked with carnality, his parents did every thing required of them. Adam had a perfect Father, yet this didn’t go so good for him.

2. Naomi > Ruth: A beautiful prelude to NT redemption, conversion, and adoption – a picture story of the New Covenant. Here is a good example of the spiritual parent getting a late start, yet what a fruitful relationship it became!

B. Bad ones:

1. Eli > Hophni and Phinehas: While Eli typified the state of the nation at the time, his sons typified him. Like father – like sons.

2. Samuel > Joel and Abijah: Because of the undoubtedly overwhelming administrative duties, this case becomes one of the finest warnings for parents who find themselves “too busy” for discipling their children; particularly those bogged down with pastoral responsibilities.

C. Ugly:

1. Gideon > Abimelech: While Gideon’s ephod does raise some questions concerning the latter part of his life; there is not enough evidence that he was inciting the people or his family to idolatry. Much like Samson’s story, at some point the actions of the child must reflect his own, not his parents, self-determination. For this one bad apple, Gideon had 70 sons that were martyrs, not too bad of a track record?!?

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